Inspired by her children’s ubiquitous ABC picture books, not to mention the traditions of avant-garde alphabetizing, experimental mainstay Lynne Sachs concocted Abecedarium: NYC, an exquisite online corpse of cinematic cartography.
All my life I’ve been working in the arts. I drew, took pictures and wrote poetry a lot as a kid. Later, when I was a teenager, I got very excited and disturbed by a number of issues—particularly the reinstatement of the draft and abortion rights. I realized, “There’s this part of me that cares about social and political situations; but, I’ll still need to keep this other part that is about my more private self, the part that wants to play with images and words, exploring the everyday.”
If I had to choose a single word to encapsulate Lynne Sachs’ cinema, it would be “searching.” Her work is marked by a mode of inquiry, of seeking out connections, of investigation. What is she looking for? Meaning, maybe. But more so, historical consciousness, an ethical way of being in the world, a politics of humanity. I’ve known her to get on a plane to move a film project forward, unsure what she will find when she lands or where the project is going. It seems every time we talk and check in, she’s been someplace else, at work on yet another project. She is indefatigable in her search, and she has been extraordinarily prolific.
“In 2009, I completed The Last Happy Day, a film that uses both real and imagined stories about Sandor Lenard, a distant cousin of mine and a Hungarian medical doctor. (See text above for description). Several years ago I traveled to Sao Paolo, Brazil to film Sandor’s eighty-five year old wife, Andrietta. She described in vivid, almost dreamy, detail her husband’s macabre work. I listened to her recount his daily contact with the detritus of war, wondering to myself why we so rarely think about who is responsible for “cleaning up” the dead. Later in the film, Andrietta’s graphic, realistic recollections stir visual ruminations on this futile act of posthumous, cosmetic surgery.
How do you make a doc that’s not a doc? How do you make an experimental film that is not one? How and why do moving image experimenters and documentarians combine their genres? Howard Guttenplan’s Millennium Film Journal (Spring/Summer 2009, #51) deeply penetrates these questions and creative cross-fertilizations. Guest editors, Lucas Hilderbrand and Lynne Sachs have gathered innovators to fill 100 pages of insights. Jill Godmilow’s advice to abandon “truth claims, intimacy and satisfying forms” recalls genre-bending pioneer Luis Bunuel’s “I have always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways with them when they think they have found it.” Reading MFJ raises new questions. Richard Fung queries, “What kind of truths can be communicated better in documentary than in fiction – and vice versa?” This echoes Faulkner’s “Sometimes the best fiction is more true than journalism.” The essays provoke us to examine the motives and consequences of these media practitioners.
I hope I have managed to get across at least some of what I wanted to. I made this a Yes essay for me. I just went where the wind took me. Some of it is perfect, like how I wanted, and some of it is far from it. Thank you for letting me interview you. [art] lives in the lining of your skin. I always seem to wish I had more time.
A few nights ago, on the first crisp evening of autumn, I emerged from a film screening at the Millennium Film Workshop onto East 4th Street in Manhattan with Jem Cohen. Nested in the sublime clutter and cacophony of the Lower East Side, this block between 2nd and 3rd Avenue is home to some of the most innovative theater and film venues in New York City. It’s a dark, quiet, albeit decrepit, building that seems to hide its cinematic and theatrical secrets with a kind of futuristic pleasure. As we headed east toward the subway that would lead us both to our homes in Brooklyn, Jem gasped, not really out of fear or even surprise, but rather as if an internal light had gone on inside his mind, awakening a memory he needed to release. “Wait,” he exclaimed, “let’s go this way instead. I want to show you the most beautiful building in New York City.”
This semester in Media Mavericks we will explore the experimental media work that has emerged in the realm of the documentary. In our discussion of this movement in film and video, we will consider how the practice of working with reality can be challenged, even transported, by the aesthetic freedom that comes with alternative modes of visual expression.
I AM NOT A WAR PHOTOGRAPHER is what I’ve decided to call a group of five films I’ve made over the last thirteen years. After breathlessly watching Christian Freil’s “War Photographer” (2001), the utterly transformative documentary on the life of James Nachtway, print journalism’s quintessential career war photographer, I knew that Nachtway’s remarkable credo —
“Every minute I was there, I wanted to flee. I did not want to see this. Would I cut and run, or would I deal with the responsibility of being there with a camera?”